Category Archives: Bit of politics

There was no late swing, and there were no shy Tories

One of the most interesting questions after the 2015 UK General Election is, how could all of the electoral polling possibly have gone so incredibly wrong?

Labour and the Conservatives were predicted to be neck-and-neck and both short of forming a government on their own, with Labour losing about 50 seats in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

election_eve_poll
UK 2015 seat prediction on election eve, according to the Guardian’s poll-of-polls

Instead, the Conservatives won a small majority of total seats. Netted out, Labour gained only four English seats from the Conservatives despite its low 2010 base, and lost two seats in its heartland of Wales to the Conservatives.

Labour’s remaining gains in England came from the brutal destruction of the Liberal Democrats, which the polls dramatically understated. This was cold comfort, as the Conservatives took far more former Lib Dem seats, including almost all of the ones that the polls had predicted would stay orange.

Actual UK election results
UK 2015 actual UK election results

So what the hell happened?

Two popularly floated explanations in the media have been a late swing, and the ‘shy Tories’ problem. Both are almost certainly wrong.

Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got late swing

One thing we can reasonably rule out is the concept of a late swing to the Conservatives: a scenario where the polls accurately captured voting intentions, but where people changed their mind at the last minute.

We know this, because online pollster YouGov made an innovative attempt at a kind of internet-based exit poll (this is not how YouGov described it, but it’ll do). After the vote, it contacted members of its panel and asked them how they voted. The results of this poll were almost identical to those recorded in opinion polls leading up to the election.

Meanwhile, the UK’s major TV networks carried out a traditional exit poll, in which voters at polling stations effectively repeated their real vote. This poll (which covered a balanced range of constituencies, but whose results weren’t adjusted as they are for small-sample opinion polls) found results that were utterly different from all published opinion polls, and came far closer to the final result.

Putting the two together, the likeliest outcome is that people were relatively honest to YouGov about how they voted, and that they voted in the same way they told all the pollsters that they were going to vote. This isn’t a late swing problem.

No True Shy Tories

If we ignore Scotland (where the polls were pretty much correct), this is a similar outcome to the 1992 General Election: opinion polling predicted a majority for Labour, but the Conservatives instead won a majority and another five years of power.

A common narrative for poll failure after the 1992 election was one of ‘shy Tories’ [1]. In this story, because Tories are seen as baby-eating monsters, folk who support them are reluctant to confess anything so vile in polite society, and therefore tell pollsters that they’re going to vote for the Green Party, the Lib Dems, or possibly Hitler.

From 1992 onwards, polls were weighted much more carefully to account for this perceived problem, with actual previous election results and vote flows also being used to adjust raw data into something that can reasonably be expected. This happened in 2015, as it has for every election in between [2].

We know that the internet provides the illusion of anonymity [3]. People who’d be unlikely in real life to yell at a footballer or a children’s novelist that they were a scumsucking whorebag are quite happy to do so over Twitter. Foul-minded depravities that only the boldest souls would request at a specialist bookstore are regularly obtained by the mildest-mannered by an HTTP request.

In this environment, if ‘shy Tories’ and poor adjustment for them were the major problems, you would expect internet-based polls to have come closer to the real result than phone-based polls. But they did the opposite:

The current 10-day average among telephone polls has the Tories on 35.5% [and] Labour on 33.5%… The average of online polls has the Conservatives (32%) trailing Labour (34%)

So what is the explanation then? This goes a bit beyond the scope of a quick blog post. But having ruled out late swing and unusually shy Tories in particular, what we have left, more broadly, is the nature of the weighting applied. Is groupthink among pollers so great that weighting is used to ensure that you match everyone else’s numbers and don’t look uniquely silly? Are there problems with the underlying data used for adjustment?

Personally, I suspect this may be a significant part of it:

According to the British Election Study (BES), nearly 60 per cent of young people, aged 18-24, turned out to vote. YouGov had, however, previously suggested that nearly 69% of under-25s were “absolutely certain” to vote on 7 May.

Age is one of the most important features driving voting choice, and older voters are both far more conservative and far more Conservative than younger voters [4]. If turnout among younger voters in 2015 was significantly lower than opinion pollsters were expecting, this seems like a good starting point for a post-mortem.

Update: YouGov’s Anthony Wells comments on the YouGov not-quite-an-exit-poll:

[1] Some polling experts think the actual failure in 1992 had more to do with weighting based on outdated demographic information, but opinion is divided on the matter.

[2] Several polls in 2015 that showed 33-35% Labour vote shares were weighted down from raw data that showed Labour with closer to 40%.

[3] An illusion that diminishes the closer one comes to working in IT security.

[4] There are papers suggesting that this is to do with cohorts rather than ageing, and that It’s All More Complicated Than That, but anyone denying the basic proposition above is a contrarian, a charlatan or both.

FPTP doesn’t mean your vote is wasted – just ask a Scot

The UK’s New Economics Foundation, who style themselves as nef because that’s the sort of thing that was cool in 2003, are one of the worst think-tanks going [1].

With a couple of weeks to go before the 2015 General Election, they have jumped on the election news bandwagon. Their effort is well up to their normal standards of competence.

One of nef’s pet ideas has long been that the UK should have a mainland-European style electoral system, dropping member-represented constituencies in favour of party lists based on percentages of the national vote.

So they’ve created a data website that claims to show ‘how much your vote is worth’, based on the size of the winning party’s majority in the seat you’re voting in at the last election (so if the majority last time was 10, your vote is worth masses, and if it was 20,000 your vote is worth bugger all).

This isn’t a completely unreasonable thing to do. The UK first-past-the-post system tends to favour major parties and local parties, while discouraging nationally-supported minor parties.

For example, in the 2010 election, the Northern Irish pro-unionist DUP won 8 seats on 0.6% of the UK-wide vote, while the neo-Nazi [2] nationwide BNP won no seats at all on 1.9% of the UK-wide vote. The Green Party won one seat on 0.9% of the UK-wide vote, reflecting its greater geographic concentration than the BNP [3].

Meanwhile, Labour and the Conservatives have historically tended to focus campaigns on battleground seats rather than seats where everyone is very poor or very rich.

However, the UK system also allows me as a voter in the constituency of Islington North to vote for a rebellious, anti-war, left-of-Labour MP like Jeremy Corbyn, rather than for whoever goes on the top half of a list of party sycophants to be rewarded with office for years of dedicated hackery.

And as someone who believes democracy is a means rather than an end, I rather like the way that the UK system mostly filters out Nazis and raving lunatics.

Since nef is composed of the kind of early-career wonks who would end up on the ‘rewards for dedicated hackery’ list, it is not surprising that their press release – as faithfully repeated by the Independent here – dwells entirely on the negatives of first-past-the-post, and compares it solely to a European-style list PR system, without stating any of its drawbacks or the alternative systems [4].

But as well as being framed in an absurdly biased way, the study is self-refuting.

UntitledHere’s a list of the UK seats where, in nef’s opinion, voters’ opinion matters the least. According to nef’s analysis, voters in these 10 seats might as well stay home on polling day, because there is absolutely bugger all chance of their vote making a difference to man or beast.

To paraphrase Captain Blackadder, there is one tiny problem with this list: it is bollocks.

Of the ten seats on the list, two (Coatsbridge etc and Kirkcaldy etc) are currently predicted by Lord Ashcroft’s constituency-level opinion polls to change hands at the 2015 election from Labour to the SNP. A third (Glasgow North East) is predicted to remain Labour with a majority of only a few percentage points over the SNP. And a fourth (Belfast West) changed hands less than 20 years ago, as part of a major shift in the Northern Irish republican vote from the moderate SDLP to the, uh, less moderate [5] Sinn Féin.

I don’t know about you, but if I were putting out a press release to promote my brilliant study of electoral things, I’m not entirely sure that I’d include a table proving that it is utter nonsense.

Of course, all four of these cases were driven by a massive realignment in regional politics: the present annihilation of Scottish Labour in the wake of the independence referendum, and the previous annihilation of the moderate-but-inept-and-corrupt mainstream Northern Irish parties once the peace process was safely(ish) in place.

nef would probably argue that their methodology is still valid for the vast majority of safe seats in England and Wales – which, as for Labour’s lowland Scots seats, will be true until it isn’t.

Once an inflexion point is reached, FPTP systems deliver massive, immediate change – as seen most clearly in Canada at the 1993 election, where the ruling Progressive Conservatives [6] went from 154 seats to two. This kind of change is generally in line with the popular will, even if it doesn’t reflect the exact vote weightings of every single party on every single occasion.

When a party is wiped out under FPTP, that’s when the voters of Belfast West and Glasgow North West, of Canada’s Tory outer-suburban heartlands, get their say. It’s their say, not the say of the floating voters in the English Midlands, that is brutal and final. And it’s this pattern that nef’s analysis completely and utterly misses.

To miss FPTP’s potential for seismic shift might be forgivable, in most election campaigns. But as nef’s own data shows, it is happening in Scottish Labour’s weigh-the-vote seats right now, in this election. They’re either wilfully blind, or entirely stupid.

[1] nef’s policy solutions aren’t quite as wrong as those proposed by, say, the Taxpayers Alliance, but such groups are owned by rich crooks who  pay them to publish research lying that the government should give more money to rich crooks, so are wrong for reasons other than incompetence.

[2] The BNP claim they aren’t neo-Nazis, but they are lying.

[3] Thankfully, neo-Nazis don’t tend to agglomerate in specific areas to quite the extent that posh hippies do.

[4] The Australian system of UK-style constituencies with transferable votes, as rejected in the AV Referendum; the Irish system of combining a few constituencies and electing several members using transferable votes; and the Scottish system of geographical constituencies with top-up lists  are all examples that are arguably superior to the European list model.

[5] Depending chiefly on how moderate you believe blowing things up and shooting people in the knees is.

[6] Obvious joke: the Progressive Conservatives’ policies included toilets for bears and a Jewish papacy.

Some men never learn

As I noted last week, celebrated male feminist Sam de Brito wrote an extremely embarrassing article in 2005 praising the pick-up artist seminars organised by RSD, the company that now employs borderline-rapist Julien Blanc.

After online political magazine Crikey picked up my story, frog-in-a-sock de Brito issued a petulant denial, both in the comments to this blog and in Crikey’s comments:
sam_de_nial

De Brito may be right about never having met Blanc, but he is at best mistaken about the people running the operation. Blanc’s almost-as-personally-creepy employer, Owen Cook (who calls himself Tyler Durden, because so edgy, yah) is RSD’s co-founder, has been part of RSD since it was founded, and was part of RSD at the time de Brito wrote the original piece.

But anyway. Hack writer falls for professional con-artist’s spiel, writes terrible article, is found out later, issues embarrassed apology clearly distancing himself from the original piece, albeit with some slightly sketchy handwaving to suggest the organisation was fine in those days. All done, right?

Sadly, no.

Celebrated feminist Sam de Brito’s column this week is all about how, although Julien Blanc is a creep, the people who tried to #takedownjulienblanc were far too horrible to his poor male followers.

Julien Blanc is a creep… I’d guess this is because he was vastly unsuccessful with women in his teens, probably mocked or humiliated by them.

Well, I’m glad we’ve established whose fault Blanc’s creepdom is.

The piece goes on about the travails of poor unfortunate men, pausing briefly to wave a ‘some of these geeks are Asian, and it’s racist for white chicks to be mean to them’ shield about the place, before getting to the punchline:

No man goes out of a night worried he might be raped, sexually abused or catcalled and these are all serious instances of aberrant male behaviour that we must address, punish or discourage as a society.

The flipside of this is your average man can go out every Friday and Saturday night for five years, buy himself a drink and stand at a bar and NEVER have a woman start up a conversation with him.

You may now extract your face from your palm.

When I read this, it reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. After a few moments, I realised it was a quote from an actual feminist writer, Margaret Atwood:

“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. So this male friend of mine, who does by the way exist, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. “Undercut their world view.”

Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.

In a feat of unprecedented literary genius, celebrated male feminist Sam de Brito has taken Atwood’s stark declaration of how women live in constant fear of male violence, agreed with it completely, and then used it to argue that the real problem here is that it’s hard for men to get laid.

I have lost the ability to even can.

Thanks to @msloulou77 on Twitter for making me aware of the new de Brito piece’s existence.

Time to sue Henry Ford for complicity in car bombings

There’s an absolute stinker of an article in today’s New York Times, emotively talking up an terrible lawsuit. When stripped of irrelevant interviews with soldiers’ widows and scary quotes from showboating neoconservative lawyers, here’s the actual story.

The US didn’t take the news very well when its puppet state in Iran had a revolution in 1979. The affront was exacerbated by Iranian revolutionaries’ decision, after the US gave asylum to their murderous and corrupt ex-Shah, to take the remaining US diplomats in Iran hostage. This created a diplomatic crisis which wasn’t resolved until 1981 [1], and more importantly made the US look silly and impotent.

As a direct result, the US government, much as with the Cuban regime that followed a similar drill 20 years previously, has a hatred for Iran that far exceeds its actual wrongdoing [2]. This includes the (completely lawful, although ridiculous) imposition of sanctions on US companies trading in Iran, and the (questionably lawful, and ridiculous) imposition of sanctions on foreign companies trading in Iran.

So banks in Europe – in this suit, HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Credit Suisse – continued to trade with companies in Iran. Whether or not you like its current rulers [3], Iran is a nation state with a better human rights and terrorism funding record than many US allies (notably Saudi Arabia, which funded Al Qaeda and the exceptionally inept Islamic State) and non-enemies (China still leads the world in executions). There are no moral grounds for claiming that westerners trading with Iran are more complicit in evil than the westerners who traded with authoritarian China to make the device that you’re reading this on [4].

Next up, in 2003, US launched a humanitarian mission to neighbouring Iraq. You may have heard of it, somewhere, along the way. I chose the picture at the top of this post to remind us all of the mission’s humanitarian nature.

The Iranian government reacted to the collapse of its Iraqi enemy by funding Shia militias (many of which were also funded by the US government at various points, and without which the Sunni militias who later became Islamic State would have been unopposed in ethnically cleansing the Shia). In the course of the humanitarian mission, quite a few US servicemen, who had previously volunteered to sign up and fight whenever the US decided to have a humanitarian mission, were killed or wounded [5], some by Shia militias.

Now, the families of some of these people (the American volunteers, obviously, not the Iraqi victims) are trying to sue the European banks who traded with normal companies in Iran, on the basis that somewhere down the line, the money that was traded might have found its way via the government into the Shia militias’ pockets. As Dsquared notes on Twitter, this is roughly equivalent to suing Kellogg’s because the July 7 bombers had Coco Pops for breakfast, or suing Henry Ford because you were blown up by a car bomber in a Cortina.

One of the piece of evidence in the lawsuit, gleefully seized upon by the New York Times as highlighting the banks’ depravity, is a quote that actually highlights the opposite:

The Times’s editorialising here is a great illustration of the US’s total vanity. Its leading centre-left news outlet – and quite possibly its courts, who ruled for the plaintiffs in a similar, although less farcically indirect case – simply don’t understand that they aren’t the God-ordained rulers of the rest of the world.

[1] Possibly delayed due to incoming president Reagan’s backroom deal with Iran, although I’m sceptical he was bright enough to pull off quite such an intricate conspiracy.

[2] A hatred which has more or less guaranteed the survival of the unpleasant regimes in both countries by undermining local opposition and providing the ruling party with a plethora of patriotic rallying opportunities.

[3] Although if you do like Iran’s current rulers, it seems likely that you are a fairly terrible person.

[4] If you’re reading this on a device which has no components manufactured in authoritarian China, then I am very impressed by your dedication.

[5] Alongside several orders of magnitude more Iraqis, who hadn’t been quite so blessed with the opportunity to choose.

Memory hole? Fixed that for ya

This Sydney Sunday Telegraph piece from a few years back has disappeared down the News Corp memory hole, oddly enough. Before you give it a read, here’s a bit of context on the protagonists.

RSD is the pick-up artist company that later hired despicable pro-rape arsehole Julien Blanc, of #takedownjulienblanc fame [1].

Sam De Brito is an excellent male feminist role model as endorsed by many august [2] publications.

It is reproduced here on the basis of fair dealing, fair comment, fair play, and all the fun of the fair.

Men Paying To Learn To Be Appealing

The Sunday Telegraph

by Sam De Brito, JANUARY 16, 2005

AUSTRALIAN men are paying as much as $1600 to be coached in the art of picking up women by highly skilled dating instructors.

Los Angeles-based company Real Social Dynamics (RSD) offers three-day “boot camps” that train men how to approach and attract women.

“Most guys fumble their way through interactions with women and have no idea how sexual chemistry works,” says Tim, one of RSD’s local instructors.

“Attracting women is a skill set that can be learned and mastered like any other talent – and that’s what we’re here to teach guys.”

RSD puts theory into practice “in the field”.

On meeting dating coach Tim, aka “The Chariot”, I thought: “What the hell can this kid teach anyone about women?”

At 20, Tim is an average-looking Melbourne boy who works in finance. Yet within an hour, I’m watching him do things I’ve never witnessed before.
Tim’s student for the next three days is Steve, 23, a public servant from Adelaide who is decidedly awkward and reserved.

“Most guys link their self-esteem to the way women react to them, and it’s the completely wrong frame to come from,” says Tim.

“I look at the world as a playground. When you talk to women, you’re shooting hoops.

“Sometimes you get it in the basket, sometimes you miss, but you learn with every shot you take.”

Tim says the biggest adjustment any man needs to make to be successful with women is internal: “You’ve got to have fun and make it fun for the girl.”

Even before a man approaches a woman, she’s made judgements about his social value, says Tim, who declined to be photographed, saying anonymity was essential for his work in public.

Rich men, rock stars and handsome guys already have this value, but the rest of us are left to slug it out using body posture, sappy dialogue and vocal tonality.

“Alpha males – that tiny percentage of guys who know what’s up with women – act a certain way, and you can learn it,” says Tim.

Give-aways such as talking too quickly and laughing at your own jokes tell a woman clearer than capital letters that you’re needy.

“The vast majority of women prefer men who are in control, confident and funny,” says Tim.

“Not everyone is naturally like that, so we teach you how to fake it ’til you make it.”

RSD coaches say the best way to initiate a conversation is with a “neutral opinion opener”.

“Women love to give their opinions on a topic, especially if it’s emotionally charged like, ‘Do men lie more than women?’ ” says Tim.

“Instead of asking boring questions that girls have heard a thousand times … we involve them on an emotional level.”

Steve is taught to do this through a variety of “hot” topics and psychological games that on many occasions had women saying: “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“Women want to experience these reactions with men. It’s incredibly refreshing for them,” says Tim.

“It also makes any man, no matter what he looks like, an attractive partner.”

Over the course of a weekend, three things become apparent about Tim and RSD’s methods.

1. It’s a numbers game. The more women you talk to, the greater your chance of finding a female you like and who digs you.

2. Tim has an uncanny charm with women. Almost every group he approaches is stoked to talk to him and enjoys his company.

3. It’s rubbing off on Steve. The guy who had struck me as awkward 72 hours earlier is now scanning nightclub crowds like a gunslinging Clint Eastwood.

In just one weekend, Steve has talked to hundreds of females, compiling an expanding library of experience on what women want.

He has also made a fundamental discovery that, Tim says, will set him on his way to success with the opposite sex.

“The most important thing is having a positive mind set and having fun,” says Steve, pocketing a skater girl’s phone number.

An excellent piece from Australia’s premier male feminist, I’m sure we can all agree.

[1] People are also trying to get Julien Blanc deported from Australia for being terrible. While I understand what they mean, Australia’s history of deporting people because the general consensus is that they’re terrible is not one that anyone sensible and left-leaning should seek to emulate, despite obvious temptation.

[2] They may also come out in the rest of the year. I hope you didn’t think I was using any other sense of ‘august’.

No, white people, we don’t get to decide what’s racist

Boston Review editor Simon Waxman wrote a piece this June in the Washington Post, saying that the US Army’s decision to name its weaponry after Native American tribes – like the Apache helicopter above – is worse than the Washington Redskins’ decision to keep its gross racial slur name.

Waxman is white and not of Native American descent [1]. His piece doesn’t contain quotes from, or interviews with, Native American writers tribal leaders, or members of the public. Or indeed anyone at all, except Noam Chomsky, which is probably slightly worse than not quoting anyone at all.

This makes him less qualified to comment than, uh, the US Army. Who, sensibly, require any decision to name a weapon after a Native American tribe or chief to be approved by both the relevant tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs:
Untitled

Native Americans get to decide whether the Washington Redskins is an acceptable term. They think that it is totally unacceptable. Therefore, the Washington Redskins need to change their name. Native Americans get to decide whether Apache helicopters is an acceptable term. They think it is fine. Therefore, Apache helicopters don’t need to change their name.

Neither white sports fans, nor white Boston lefties trying to demonstrate their contrarian right-on-ness, get a say in either, and nor should they. Case closed.

Why am I bringing this incredibly basic point up now? Well, because of a response to Waxman’s piece by US Army aviator Crispin Burke. It is well-researched; indeed, it is where I found the reference to the consultation with Native American tribes that I’ve reproduced above.

But the tone it takes is absolutely terrible. The lede is:

Everyone Relax—The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist
There’s a difference between honor and exploitation

The piece goes on from the tone set there, pointing out for several paragraphs how the names are chosen to honour Native American warriors, complaining that Waxman’s piece reads like an Onion parody of political correctness, and generally following the irrelevant ‘it’s honour! Not a slur!” line that the Washington Redskins’ defenders tend to spout.

The key point that Burke has found: that all decisions to name military hardware after Native American tribes are approved by the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is buried almost as a sarcastic aside.

And it ends with this sign-off, which is a vat of aaaaaaagh no large enough to pickle an elephant:

Taking Waxman’s logic to the extreme, we should expect to see legions of Peloponnesian-Americans demand the military purge its references to Spartans from its lexicon. And let’s not forget the howls of protest from disgruntled Fighting Irish.

No, if Greek-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Spartans; if Irish-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Fighting Irish, then changing them would be a good idea. The only reason changing them is not a good idea is that those groups aren’t offended [2].

Neither Simon Waxman nor Crispin Burke get to decide whether the use of a term is racist. Only the people on the other end of the term get to decide that. Although Burke’s conclusion is the right one in this particular case, that appears to be only by coincidence.

[1] Unless I’ve missed something whilst researching his biography and his other work, in which case I apologise. Although if he is of Native American descent then it might have been a good idea for him to mention this in the original piece.

[2] Relative privilege and historical guilt may also mean that people in the US are obliged to give special consideration to the views of Native Americans compared to those of Greek- or Irish-Americans. But since the latter groups aren’t making these requests, we don’t need to worry about that here.

The death of the banana republic

US-based banana producer and importer Chiquita, the world’s largest banana company, is almost certain to be bought by a Brazilian consortium, after the collapse of its attempted tax-dodge reverse takeover of Irish-based banana importer Fyffes.

In some ways, this is an entirely normal business story.

It features the collapse of the easy, painless [1] tax revenues that the US government could once reliably collect from US-based multinationals’ overseas ventures, as companies move their formal registration and a couple of dozen accountants and lawyers to low-tax jurisdictions like Bermuda, Ireland and the Netherlands whilst keeping management control in the US. It features the growing importance of Brazil’s highly competent and often highly cash-rich middle class, whose flagship was Brazilian-controlled InBev’s takeover of Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch.

But that isn’t the whole of it.

The full story takes us back to the tail-end of the 19th century, when advances in shipping made it viable, for the first time, to ship bananas from South America to urban consumers in the northern US.

The United Fruit Company, founded in 1899 by the merger of banana pioneers in Boston and New York, owned and operated plantations in the Caribbean and Central America, and introduced refrigerated sea transport to provide New Yorkers and New Englanders with the freshest fruit.

The UFC [2] found itself building complex logistics networks in countries that had previously lacked any real communications capacity. And as the US became the world’s leading power, and US consumers became richer and hungrier for bananas, the UFC found itself far richer than any of the governments that nominally ruled the Central American countries where it traded [3].

Which is how the term ‘banana republic‘ was coined. Even before WWI, the UFC controlled telecoms and postal networks in Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. With politicians in the company’s pockets, it dominated the US banana trade. It kept costs low by dispossessing peasants of their lands through crooked legal systems, and then employed them as cheap labour on the grounds that serfdom was mostly better than starving to death.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re probably aware of the history of British India.

The main difference between the United Fruit Company and the East India Company is that the former never even required a show of US military force to protect its interests. The implicit threat was so clear, it never needed to be carried out. Besides, bribes are cheaper than wars.

So why am I blethering on about the United Fruit Company? Well, in 1990, it was renamed to Chiquita Brands International. The same one mentioned above. That’s right: the ultimate US imperialist multinational, the inventor of the banana republic, is about to be bought by South Americans.

In the long run, all empires fall and all companies collapse. And often enough, it’s the people they oppressed who take over. The East India Company brand is now owned by an Indian business. There’s nothing new under the sun, and so on.

But I don’t think I’ve seen a quicker shift from colonial corporate power to re-appropriation than Chiquita.

[1] For US consumers and the US economy in general. I’m sure US CEOs were deeply pained.
[2] The best wrestling abbreviation coincidence since Pandas vs Hulk Hogan.
[3] There is some extremely good development economics work on this; this paper is a great start.

The Heywood & Middleton result shows Ed Miliband will be the next PM

There were two by-elections this Thursday for UK parliament constituencies, both in England: Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex, and Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester.

The Clacton one isn’t particularly interesting: a vaguely crazy Tory MP decided to defect to UKIP, as MPs are allowed to do in a Westminster system, and decided to waste everyone’s time while buying publicity for his new party with public money by holding a by-election instead of hanging on until the general election in May 2015. He won, because Clacton is full of horrible bigots. The Labour vote share went up, albeit from barely anything to not very much.

The Heywood by-election is more normal, in that it came about because the local MP inconveniently died, but also more interesting.

Heywood is traditionally a reasonably safe Labour seat. But it’s not a “they weigh the vote here” seat like Clacton used to be for the Tories, of the sort that Labour still have in poorer, more industrial northern English and southern Scottish cities: in the 2010 General Election, Labour took 40% of the vote, the Tories took 27% and the Lib Dems took 23%. UKIP, in their previous incarnation as mostly harmless vaguely posh cranks, got 2.6%; the outright-fascist BNP got 7%.

In yesterday’s by-election, Labour’s share of the vote held up: they got 41%. The Liberal Democrats were pulverised, with their vote share falling to 5%. The Tories were badly damaged, with their vote share falling to 12%, and the BNP didn’t stand. UKIP benefited from all of these changes, with their vote share rising to 39%.

The concept of Lib Dems switching to UKIP seems weird, but it was borne out by Tory strategist Lord Ashcroft’s polling after the Eastleigh by-election, where Lib Dem-to-UKIP switchers were the largest single group. This reflects the fact that a lot of people voting Lib Dem in 2010 did so because they hate the Tories and Labour, not because they are committed to economically-centrist civil-libertarian ideas.

Hopefully we’ll get some detailed post-vote polling data on the dynamics in play at Heywood. I suspect we may not, as it is certainly not a Tory target seat and so may not be worth Lord Ashcroft’s money – I’ll do some more detailed analysis on switching if we do. But on the face of it, it would appear that in Tory areas, UKIP is capable of taking significant numbers of Tory votes, to the point where it will win some seats outright and – more importantly – cost the Tories enough votes in marginal seats to win them for Labour.

In Labour areas, the best UKIP can manage is to bring together angry Tories, ex-neo-Nazis, and the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 out of spite – which could plausibly win it a seat or two in its own right (although it’s worth noting that by-elections always exaggerate the crank party vote, because they’re far more likely to bother turning up), but certainly won’t lose Labour any seats to the Tories, and should actually help Labour out in seats that were close Labour/Conservative marginals in 2010.

If the way things played out on Thursday night is the way they play out in Westminster in May 2015, Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister, leading a government with a working majority. Don’t listen to the idiots who are pretending this is equally bad news for both major parties.

Not a case of political correctness gorn mad

The picture is a Banksy mural. It was painted on 30 September 2014, and erased by the end of 1 October 2014.

The story was reported by UK media on 2 October 2014 as being “erased after ‘racist’ complaint“, with the implication being that – despite its clear antiracist message – minority groups were offended because they’re idiots who can’t take a joke.

This is unlikely.

Clacton-on-Sea is one of the whitest places in England. Of the 1,688 people living in the seaside postcode area, 29 are non-white.

It’s also one of the most bigoted places in England. Its Tory MP recently defected to UKIP, and is expected to win a resounding victory in his new incarnation as a Kipper – which is presumably why Banksy chose the place as the site for his mural. Like many eastern England coastal towns, it is full of bitter angry old white people (much of the Economist’s analysis on Tilbury stands in here, although Clacton is far further from London and was never a dock town) and low on jobs. Despite featuring very few immigrants, because nobody in their right mind would choose to live there, the residents blame the lack of available jobs on them anyway.

So let’s consider the probabilities of these two scenarios:

1) one of the 29 non-white people saw the piece, assumed it was racist rather than anti-racist, complained to the (bitter, angry, old, white) staff at the right-wing, Tory-controlled council, and was taken seriously in an example of PC Gorn Mad.

2) one of the 1,659 white people saw the piece, didn’t like its message, complained to the (bitter, angry, old, white) staff at the right-wing, Tory-controlled council about Anti-White Racism, and it got taken down in an example of humourless jobsworth-ery with a possible side dish of bigotry.

My money is heavily on scenario 2 (and I made a few bob on my last excursion into political betting, so I’m feeling lucky if anyone wants to take me up on that one…)

Abbott, Birthers, written constitutions, judges, hilarity

Australian PM Tony Abbott was born in the UK in 1957. Being born in the UK between 1948 and 1983, he immediately became a British citizen by birth. His mother was an Australian citizen, so he also immediately acquired the right to Australian citizenship by descent.

Paperwork and patriotism

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott

The law in force at the time provided automatic citizenship by descent on registering with the Australian government, for anyone under the age of 25. Abbott’s parents didn’t do this at the time of his birth, and also didn’t do this when they moved to Australia in 1960, when Tony was three years old, as assisted migrants (Ten Pound Poms).

Abbott acquired Australian citizenship by registration in 1981, at the age of 23, when he applied for a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Taking an Australian Rhodes scholarship requires you to have Australian citizenship, and to have been resident in Australia for five of the last 10 years. Abbott presumably discovered on application that he wasn’t the Australian citizen he believed himself to be [1].

Not worrying about formal nationality was common at the time of Abbott’s birth and emigration: British and Australian nationality were only legally separated with the two countries’ 1948 citizenship acts, and up until 1973 the distinction remained irrelevant for most practical purposes. British citizens [2] were eligible to move to Australia without strict migration criteria, vote in Australian elections, and become Australian citizens after a year’s residence without having to undergo the naturalisation process that applied to other foreigners. For another decade, up until 1984, British citizens were eligible to vote and stand for office in Australia without becoming Australian citizens – and British citizens who were on the electoral roll in 1984 and continue to reside in Australia remain eligible.

So, Abbott’s parents were a bit crap at admin, in a context where nobody really thought that the legal difference between British and Australian citizenships mattered (the majority of Australians in 1960, and a large proportion in 1980, had been legally British during their own lifetimes despite never having set foot in the UK, because all Australians were legally British until 1948). His parents filled out a form well within the allowable 25 years allowing him to claim citizenship through birth rather than naturalisation.

People going on about this aspect of Abbott’s early life are basically idiots, with fewer legs to stand on than the average snake.

Independence Day: 3 March 1986

This map clearly shows that only the top half of Western Australia is British
This map clearly shows that only the top half of Western Australia is British

The Australia Act 1986, passed simultaneously in the UK and Australian parliaments, severed Australia’s remaining formal colonial ties to the UK [3]. The UK Parliament renounced its right to legislate with effect in Australia (at state or federal level), the UK government renounced all powers to advise the Queen on Australian matters, and the UK Privy Council lost its status as Australia’s official highest court of appeal.

The long title to the Act describes Australia as “a sovereign, independent and federal nation”, and the High Court of Australia confirmed in Shaw vs Minister for Immigration in 2003 that the Act marks the start date for Australian independence. As well as being a far better date to celebrate Australia’s national day than either the current Australia Day (commemorating the First Fleet of white criminals and prison guards on 26 January, 1788) or the sometimes-suggested alternative of Federation Day (commemorating the establishment of the federal parliament on 1 January, 1901), this declaration of independence had a particularly weird unforeseen consequence for federal politics.

Seriously, foreigners are the wurst
Seriously, foreigners are the wurst

One of the major drivers behind Federation was settler paranoia about non-white people and people of non-English descent, and the desire to impose greater control on borders [4]. This is reflected in the Constitution, whose Section 44i bans people who are “a citizen… of a foreign power” from standing for federal parliament.

This clause came out of fear of fifth-columnists, traitors, Germans, Chinese spies, and all the other things that continue to fill the nightmares of white right-wing hicks. Since all Australians were British citizens at the time, nobody from the British Empire was considered to be of a foreign power; that only applied to the weird ones who ate garlic, drank coffee and didn’t even speak English. But if you were of German birth and wanted to stand for federal parliament, you needed to renounce your German citizenship first, even if this wasn’t cancelled upon your acquisition of Australian citizenship.

You can probably see where this one is going

After the Australia Act 1986, the High Court determined in Sue vs Hill (1999) that since Australia was independent, the UK was now also on the list of undesirable places full of dirty foreign traitors who shouldn’t be allowed to sully the federal parliament’s door – and therefore, that anyone who was an Australian/UK dual national was required to renounce their citizenship before they were elected to federal parliament, just like dual nationals of other countries.

In a country with a flexible constitution, this would have been a good cue to take the sensible measure of repealing a ridiculous law enacted by 19th century xenophobes and serving no purpose whatsoever. But the Australian constitution is extremely hard to amend, requiring a process of national referendums, which would be overkill over a mild and faintly embarrassing procedural inconvenience – so Section 44i remains in force. Anyone born a foreign citizen seeking federal office needs not only to become an Australian citizen, but also to renounce their foreign citizenship.

Which brings us to the more significant accusations against Abbott.

"The second that dickhead gets thrown out, I'll down this in one."
“The second that dickhead gets thrown out, I’ll down this in one”

Former PM Julia Gillard, also UK-born, made clear as PM that she had formally renounced her British citizenship before entering the Australian parliament in 1998. Abbott has never said this publicly in the same way, arousing suspicions from various corners. Yesterday (2 September), his office issued a statement that “The Prime Minister is an Australian citizen and does not hold citizenship of any other country”.

This is a noticeably less strong claim than the one that Gillard made: it could mean he renounced his UK citizenship either before standing for parliament, or at some point after becoming an MP, or last week.

Screeching Birthers are still talking out of their arses

But Tony Abbott’s eligibility to be a federal MP in this parliament doesn’t hinge on whether he had renounced UK citizenship in 1994, when he first became MP for Warringah – it hinges on whether he had renounced UK citizenship at the date of the last federal election, which was his second as Leader of the Opposition and prospective Prime Minister. It’s vanishingly unlikely, given that Section 44i and Sue vs Hill are both known quantities, that the Liberal Party would have been incompetent enough to go to election twice with a leader who was ineligible for office.

Even if this had somehow happened, which would be hilarious, the result would be to invalidate Abbott’s election as MP for Warringah, forcing a by-election in an safe Liberal seat, with a large continued Liberal-National majority in the lower house even in the extremely unlikely event that the by-election were lost. There would be no requirement in the constitution for Abbott to stand down as PM at this point: the PM isn’t mentioned in the constitution, and there is no legal requirement for the PM to be an MP. More likely, he’d stand in the by-election (since we know he is now eligible), win it, and then carry on regardless.

Nonetheless, the whole shebang does draw attention to an extremely silly constitutional provision that Australia would be best without.

[1] Something rather like this happened to a friend’s sister, who was born in Australia after the 1986 Australian Citizenship (Amendment) Act to parents who at the time were not permanent residents. She discovered aged 18, having lived her whole life in Australia, that she wasn’t an Australian citizen and needed to apply for naturalisation rather urgently.

[2] For reasons that are painfully complicated, the law actually referred to British subjects, which is not quite the same thing as British citizens, but that’s a post for another day.

[3] Elizabeth II’s powers in Australia are as Queen of Australia, not as Queen of the United Kingdom.

[4] luckily, this no longer applies to anybody ever.